Where Did All the Community College Students Go? Why Men Stopped Out

Blog Post
Jennifer G. Lang / Shutterstock.com
March 18, 2021

This blog post is part of a series that explores the data from New America's Community College Enrollment Survey. You can read our introductory post to this series here.

The COVID-19 pandemic and resulting economic crisis has hit community college enrollments hard. Nationwide, according to National Student Clearinghouse data, there was a 3.6 percent decline year-over-year in enrollment for undergraduates this fall. At community colleges, that decline stood at a steep 10.1 percent.

Much has been written about how women have been affected by the ongoing COVID-19 crisis: they’ve been more likely to lose jobs, they have left the workforce to care for children home from school and others in their family, they are struggling to balance helping children with distance learning, working essential jobs in person or jobs from home, and having to keep up with household chores. Given the particular stress placed on women, many higher education experts expected to see a subsequent large enrollment decline of women this past fall. What has been unexpected is that the enrollment decline, in terms of percentage, has been larger for men at community colleges. Overall, enrollment declined 14.7 percent for men at community colleges compared to 6.8 percent for women.

In order to understand this decline in enrollment, New America surveyed current, former, and would-be community college students in December 2020. In this post, we take a deeper look in particular at men who were enrolled in the spring of 2020 but stopped out by the fall of 2020 (see below for methodology). We reveal the particular challenges men faced compared to women who stopped out, and reasons they stated for pausing their education. We also highlight some differences between white men and men of color, but caution that our sample size for white men (65) results in a larger margin of error (12.5 percent) and should be viewed more as a trend.

Differences Between Men and Women in Reasons for Stopping Out

Similar to women, the driving reason for stopping out for men was having to work (76 percent of men said this was a reason versus 69 percent of women) (See table below). They also felt similar to women in that the pandemic negatively impacted the career path they wanted to choose (57 percent of men said this was a reason versus 51 percent of women).

But some interesting differences emerged between the two groups when it came to other factors for stopping their education. Men feared the safety of taking classes in person at higher rates (62 percent) than women (54 percent). Men were also more likely to say they did not want to take classes online (53 percent) compared to women (42 percent). Perhaps, this was in part due to not having access to technology or the internet--men were more likely to say they didn’t have access (52 percent) versus women (41 percent). Men (33 percent) were also more likely than women (23 percent) to say they had unreliable internet connections when it came to streaming content such as course lectures or using zoom or other video conferencing software.

Total reason (major/minor) for stopping out Men (n=169) Women (n=325)
Had to work 76% 69%
Felt the pandemic negatively impacted the career path I wanted to choose 57% 51%
Feared the safety of taking classes in person 62% 54%
Did not want to take classes online 53% 42%
Did not have access or internet technology to take classes online 52% 41%

Differences Between Men and Women in Schedule Stability

Similar to women, a sizable proportion of men who stopped out said they had little to no control over their schedule from week to week (36 percent of men versus 32 percent of women). They were more likely than women, however, to say the time they need for work, school, or family responsibilities and personal time changes from week to week (68 percent men versus 58 percent women). (See figures below.)

Other Notable Differences: Program Enrollment, Sentiments Toward Their Institutions, and Higher Education Debt

Men who stopped out were more likely than women to be enrolled in computer/information science programs (15 percent men versus 6 percent women) and manufacturing/construction (13 percent men versus 3 percent women). It may have been difficult for those enrolled in manufacturing and construction programs to continue their education online given the hands-on nature of these programs.

Men (47 percent) were also more likely than women (37 percent) to believe that their institutions in the spring 2020 semester did just a fair or poor job pivoting online during the nationwide shutdown. (See figure below.)

Men also indicated that they had student loan debt for their child at higher rates than women (20 versus 12 percent).

Differences Between White Men and Men of Color

Though our sample size for white men is small, there are some interesting trends in the differences between white men and men of color. As mentioned, having to work was the driving reason for both men and women for stopping out. But men of color tended to say this was a reason at a higher rate (84 percent) than white men (65 percent). Men of color were also more likely to say overall uncertainty due to the pandemic was a reason for stopping out (71 percent men of color versus 55 percent of white men). They also felt the pandemic more negatively impacted their career choice (66 percent men of color versus 46 percent white men). And they also were more likely to say they had health issues that caused them to stop out compared to white men (54 percent versus 37 percent). (See table below.)

Total reason (major/minor) for stopping out White men (n=65) Men of color (n=102)
Had to work 65% 84%
Overall uncertainty due to the pandemic 55% 71%
Felt the pandemic negatively impacted the career path I wanted to choose 46% 66%
Had a health issue 37% 54%
Did not want to take classes online 43% 60%
Did not have the technology or internet access to take classes online 43% 58%

A majority of men of color did not want to take their classes online (60 percent men of color versus 43 percent white men), and also seemed to lack access to technology at a higher rate than white men (58 percent men of color versus 43 percent white men).

Men of color also were more likely to say that they had to focus on providing care for another in their household (78 percent men of color versus 60 percent white men). They were caring for children at higher rates than white men (62 percent men of color versus 29 percent white men) and elderly family members (35 percent men of color versus 17 percent white men). (See figure below.)

Conclusion

The national enrollment decline at community colleges, which serve a plurality of America’s undergraduates, many of whom are low-income students of color, is worrisome. Few would have guessed that men would have experienced a steeper decline compared to women. As the pandemic begins to wind down, and community colleges look forward to a post-pandemic future, it’ll be important for institutional, state, and federal policymakers to understand these differences between men, women, and particularly for men of color and how to support and provide incentive to get them to re-enroll.

Methodology

Lake Research Partners designed and administered this survey, which was conducted online from December 1 through 16, 2020 and reached a total of 1,696 respondents who were screened from a national online panel into one of four potential groups. This particular analysis focused on the “Stop-outs” group only. Here is the breakdown of each of the four groups and an associated breakdown of margin of error for this particular analysis:

  1. “Continuers” (known in the topline data as “continued/transferred”) were enrolled in a public vocational or technical college, public community college, or public two-year college in both the spring and fall of 2020 (Continued) or were enrolled in a public four-year college or private two- or four-year college in the spring of 2020 and transferred into a public vocational or technical college, public community college, or public two-year college in the fall of 2020 (Transferred). A total of 501 interviews were conducted with this group: 342 were in the Continued group and 159 were in the Transferred group.
  2. “Stop-outs” (known in the topline data as “stopped”) were enrolled in a public vocational or technical college, public community college, or public two-year college in the spring of 2020 and are no longer enrolled. A total of 500 interviews were conducted with those in this group.
  3. “New Students” (known in the topline data as “newly enrolled”) considered enrolling in a public vocational or technical college, public community college, or public two-year college earlier in the year and are currently enrolled. A total of 195 interviews were conducted with those in this group.
  4. “Aspirants” (known in the topline data as “considered”) had considered enrolling in a public vocational or technical college, public community college, or public two-year college earlier in the year and are not currently enrolled. A total of 500 interviews were conducted with those in this group.

The margin of error for “Stop Outs” is as follows for this analysis: +/- 7.5 percent for men; +/- 5.4 percent for women; +/- 12.5 percent for white men; and +/- 9.7 percent for men of color.

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